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By Don VanderVeen / Photography by Brian Walters

So. You want to play the biggest, the baddest, the boldest golf courses the Wolverine State has to offer do yah? Well, set your season around these Michigan monoliths – 18 courses that when challenged from the tips are the toughest test of your game the land between the lakes has to offer.

These Michigan Monsters are ranked on their slope assigned by the Golf Association of Michigan, in association with the course rating against par.

The main purpose for assigning slope to a golf course is to provide a point of reference for handicap based on the difficulty between a scratch golfer and a bogey golfer.

“ It kind of levels the field so a bogey golfer can get handicap strokes in relationship to the difficulty of that particular course,” says Doug Hendershot, ratings manager for the G.A.M. “The bigger the differential between scores that a scratch golfer and bogey golfer would post on a particular course, the higher the slope will be. A player then can receive the proper amount of handicap strokes.”

Golf course slope ratings are based on factors such as overall length, size of the landing zones, whether trees are in the landing area or around the green, water hazards, sand traps, rough height and recoverability, forced carries, elevation, topography of the fairway, speed of the greens, green surface and green size. Also built into the testing is a psychological value based on the effect of a hole, according to Hendershot.

“ There seems to be a tendency to build a course that is harder and get a reputation that a course is difficult,” Hendershot said.

“ We’re rating more sets of tees now, because the newer courses are trying to accommodate everybody. Players who play the championship tees should be able to prove they can play it, or else it could really slow down play.

“ It’s important for a player to look at the scorecard and play a yardage that fits one’s game.”

Here they are. Eighteen Michigan Monsters by name, architect, slope and course rating.

How many have you played? How many have you tamed?

1. Tullymore
Mecosta County, Jim Engh, 148, 74.9

Checking in at No. 1 is newcomer Tullymore, a beautifully conditioned golf course near Canadian Lakes in Mecosta County.

Laid out over 800 acres — including 300 acres of wetlands — Tullymore has narrow landing areas, trees, high rough, wetlands and water to deal with throughout the course.

Playing over 7,100 yards from the back tees, the no. 11 par-3 hole includes a 250-yard all-carry shot to a blind pin position. Several doglegs add to the mystique, as do the combination of long and short holes.
“ If you want to be challenged, you will definitely be challenged,” director of golf Kevin O’Brien says.

Five sets of tees enable Tullymore to become increasingly easier to play as you shave several hundred yards off the course with each advance.

2. Shepherd’s Hollow
Clarkston, Arthur Hills, 147, 76.0

Shepherd’s Hollow is one of three Arthur Hills’ creations to make the list of Michigan Monsters.

This 27-hole wonder provides conditions more commonly found at private clubs. That means low-cut fairways and fast, fast greens.

“ The greens at Shepherd’s Hollow are as fast as they come on public courses in Michigan,” says G.A.M. course rater Doug Hendershot.

Challenges lie in wait virtually everywhere on the rolling terrain.

The greens are very large, due in part to the length of the course, which can play as long as 7,200 yards from the championship tees. It is definitely one of Southeast Michigan’s newest and most stringent tests of golf.

“ We definitely have a lot of players who want to be challenged, and people seek us out not only because it is visually appealing, but also from a competitive standpoint,” said Marty McCabe, head professional. “From a playability standpoint, the good players want to come here and play.”

3. Thoroughbred
Double JJ Resort, Rothbury, Arthur Hills, 147, 74.4

The Thoroughbred sets up differently at virtually every turn. The length from the back tees can be intimidating with several forced carries, including one over a scenic, yet troublesome cranberry bog.
“ Every shot has to be thought about,” head professional John McGee said. “You really don’t see a similar shot throughout the golf course.

“ Because of the variations of par-4s, par-5s and par-3s, you’ll use every club in your bag. There is no one hole that looks anything like another hole on the golf course.”

The natural layout — including wetlands, trees and the bog — also add to the challenge.

“ When Art Hills designed the course, the one thing he did was keep the natural landscape intact, so some of the fairways don’t give you a perfectly level lie,” McGee said. “It adds to the beauty, but at the same time it adds to the challenge and the difficulty.”

4. The Bear
Grand Traverse Resort, Jack Nicklaus, 146, 76.8

Don’t let Scott Hebert’s four Michigan Open titles and sub-par scores fool you. Reputation alone could easily make The Bear the Godzilla of Michigan golf.

“ You could ask just about any professional in state of Michigan and they would tell you the same thing after their experiences in the Michigan Open,” director of golf Tom McGee said. “There is so much difficulty around the greens because they are so well protected by bunkers and water and tall rough.

he approach shot — especially when playing from the back tees — is the tough shot.

“ The landing areas are pretty good size as a rule from the tee box, but there are a lot of moguls and heather and tall rough out there.

“ If you hit a bad shot on The Bear, it’s going to cost you two shots.

“ We have three golf courses here now, but The Bear still has the marquee name and is still one of the toughest tests of golf in Northern Michigan for sure. People want to challenge themselves and play it.”

5. Sugarbush
Davison, David Mancour, 146, 75.6

“ It’s a great classical layout that’s in excellent condition with a lot of length,” head professional Tom Wojciechoski said. “There are a lot of courses now with tricked up areas, but Sugarbush is straight out in front of you, and you have to use every club in the bag.”

The toughest element to deal with at Sugarbush may be the greens. Shooting at the pins could mean trouble.

“ The greens are elevated and crowned a little bit, and if you miss the greens, you’ll have a tough time getting it up and down,” Wojciechoski said.

“ Don’t try to shoot at pins or be short. If you’re long, you’ll be in trouble again. There are hazards or severe slopes behind the greens.

“ We don’t have a lot of manufactured penalties out there. It’s errant shots or missing greens that get you into trouble.

“ It may be difficult, but it’s also a pleasure to play.”

6. Cedar River
Shanty Creek Resort, Bellaire, Tom Weiskopf, 146, 73.6

Tom Weiskopf said he wanted to design a golf course that would be fun to play for all level of golfers. Looking at the scorecard at Cedar River can be a bit intimidating, however. The length from the tips is just under 7,000 yards.

“ The length off the tee and the difficulty of the greens make it tough,” Shanty Creek director of Golf Rodger Jabara said of the Tom Weiskopf design. “The greens are relatively flat with some subtleties and can be very difficult to read.”

All the greens, except for three, are built on the side of a hill.

Distance alone does not make Cedar River such a titanic test, an arguable point when considering the par-3s, the shortest of which is 190 yards.

“ Although it is not target golf, you need to hit it in the right place to have a good shot at the green,” Jabara said. “It’s a big golf course. The trees are cleared. It’s like a park in the roughs. If you miss a fairway, you have an opportunity to play a shot.”

7. Black Forest,
Otsego, Tom Doak, 145, 75.3

This mammoth layout is cut deep into 400 acres of Northern Michigan hardwoods. The classic bunker design and lengthy 7,044-yard layout of The Black Forest makes it suitable for big hitters.

But length alone won’t get you home. Fast and undulating greens put a premium on the short game.
British style bunker complexes are both beautiful and challenging. Did I mention there are trees in the Forest.

“ It’s basically an adventure into the north woods,” according to owner David Smith.

The spectacular setting features marshes, wetlands and Forest-lined fairways.

The par-73 layout features five sets of tees suitable for an array of players. But beware: the further back you go, the deeper you’ll find yourself in the trees.

8. Golf Club at Apple Mountain
Freeland, John Sanford, 145, 74.2

There is no low hanging fruit on this tree. You’ll have to work for par on every hole at Apple Mountain. A total of 72 bunkers accentuate the lengthy layout. The ponds have been known to ingest a few balls, too.

“ The real battle is with the sand,” head professional Brent Redman said. “The greens are very well protected by bunkers, only a few greens you can roll the ball into the hole.”

Apple Mountain features an abundance of wildlife indigenous to the area. A lot of earth was moved to create the course. As a result, the rolling fairways create some sidehill-like shots.

“ There aren’t a lot of blind shots,” Redman said. “The key to scoring is to be well positioned off the tee.”
Maybe you shouldn’t play the tips. The forward tees have a slope rating of 131.

9. King’s Challenge
Leelanau, Arnold Palmer, 145, 73.6

Par 70 says a great deal about King’s Challenge being among the Top Ten. Here’s a recurring mantra: keep your shots in the fairway.

“ What makes it tough is the penalty you incur for off line shots,” King’s Challenge general manager Mark Stevenson said. “There a lot of waste areas out there between holes.”

Water is not a nuisance at King’s Challenge, but the course is well bunkered. A couple of doglegs put a premium on shot placement. The closing hole is a 454-yard par-4 over a pond and usually into the wind.

“ The best advice I can give is to make sure you hit the right club off the tee,” Stevenson said.

The slope is 145 from the back, but eases to 134 from the blues and 126 from the forward tees.

10. Chief at Sky Lodge
John Robinson, Bellaire, 145, 72.6

The Chief joined Michigan golf’s headdress in 2001. It has felled many a brave who has tried to bring it to its knees.

“ The reason it’s such a good test from the back tees is that guys try to hit drivers and you don’t need to hit drivers all the time,” head professional Dave Hill said. “You have to play smart.

“ When you go to the bag and know you should hit 3-wood, but your heart says driver and you listen to your heart, you get into trouble.”

“ Course management forces you to use your brain. If you want to score on The Chief, you have to check your ego at the door.”

The Chief is a course that becomes easier to play with course knowledge.

“ We get a lot of replay, and the average guy knocks five or 10 shots off his score the second time around”, said Hill.

11. Treetops Sylvan Resort/Masterpiece
Gaylord, Robert Trent Jones Sr., 144, 75.5

Designed by the late, great Robert Trent Jones Sr., this is one of the courses that put Gaylord on the map as a golf destination.

The Masterpiece, like many of the Gaylord vistas, is built on ridges over heavily wooded and hilly terrain. The combination of rolling fairways, strategic bunkering and the surrounding hardwoods put a premium on accuracy off the tee. The tricky green complexes test even those who are most adept with the flat stick.

“ When the resort owner hired Jones, he wanted a difficult test of golf, and Mr. Jones complied,” says Treetops head professional Don White. He was not disappointed.

The golf course is not overly demanding off the tee, except from the tips, but it is a difficult task to try to save par if a green is missed.

“ It is not a course where the average golfer will score his best, but the scenery and the beauty of the course is what keeps people coming back to play it,” White said.

12. Timberstone
Dickinson, Jerry Matthews, 144, 75.2

Timberstone is the only U.P. course to make the list and it’s worth every mile of the drive.

Each hole at Timberstone is framed by a variety of different pine trees and indigenous trees, creating an alley effect. The greens are undulating, but roll smooth and true.

The key to scoring at the 6,937-yard Timberstone is to remain calm and enjoy the surroundings.

“ Just play smart and play to the center of the greens,” Fox said. “All in all, the golf course is just very fair. If you’re hitting a 5-iron here or at the local track at home, a 5-iron is still a 5-iron.

“ Look at the yardage, pick your club, utilize the suggestions on the scorecard and play your game. And don’t be intimidated by what’s around you.”

13. Whittaker Woods
Ken Killian, New Buffalo, 144, 74.3

Golf course architect Ken Killian knows his way around land, water and wetlands. Witness Kemper Lakes in suburban Chicago. The challenge of building Whitaker Woods on the sandy, marshy soil near the Lake Michigan shore of New Buffalo was child’s play for a designer of Killian’s ilk.

“The test begins at the tee,” said Whittaker Woods general manager Roger Dantischek. “There is a lot of carry on a lot of the holes. We have narrow fairways, and if you’re not accurate with your tee shots, you can have a lot of trouble.”

It can also get very wet. Sixteen of the 18 holes feature water, either ponds or wetlands.

“ On a lot of courses, you can either hit it left or right,” Dantischek said. “Here, you have to hit it fairly straight.

Whittaker Woods plays over 7,000 yards from the tips with four sets of tees to accommodate various levels of play. The fairways are secluded. The greens are large and true and putt well.

14. The Wolverine
Grand Traverse Resort, Gary Player, 144, 73.9

A fine complement to The Bear at Grand Traverse Resort, The Wolverine plays over 7,000 yards from the “monster” tees. Although somewhat more friendly to play than its counterpart, The Wolverine can show its teeth as the Gary Player design provides a challenge in many facets.

“ There’s a pretty good sized landing area from the tee box, but the bunkers out there are strategically placed,” Grand Traverse Resort director of golf Tom McGee said. They are not just out there for ambiance.

“ The greens are undulating and are really tough to read and tough to putt. They’re true, but tough to read.”

The par-3s from the back tees play relatively long, the shortest being 183-yards.

“ The Bear and The Wolverine are totally different,” McGee said.

“ On The Bear, if you hit the fairway, you’re assured of a good lie. It’s not the same case on The Wolverine.”

15. Bay Harbor
Boyne Highlands, Arthur Hills/Stephen Kircher, 144, 72.4

One of only two 27-hole facilities to make the illustrious list of Michigan’s Monsters, Bay Harbor is regarded as one of the premier golf courses in America.

The Links, Quarry and Preserve create Bay Harbor, which is as challenging as it is beautiful. The toughest test may be playing the Links and Quarry from the tips, two of the three nine-hole gems creating this Michigan monolith.

“ The Quarry is a little more target golf because it winds through a quarry works its way back toward Lake Michigan,” head pro Bob Fuhrman said. “At The Links, wind definitely plays a big part. It plays a lot tougher if the wind is acting up. There are no trees on the bluffs of Lake Michigan and there can be some tough shots over the bluffs with heather type grass in the rough. There are some forced carries, but you don’t have to be as target oriented.

“ They are three distinct 9s,” Fuhrman said. “The Links go down the shoreline and back, The Quarry goes through the quarry and out onto the bluffs of Lake Michigan and The Preserve features more tree-lined fairways and wetlands. All of them have a Lake Michigan flavor.”

16. Arcadia Bluffs
Manistee County, Warren Henderson/ Rick Smith, 143, 75.1

When it comes to Michigan’s Monsters, Arcadia Bluffs is Beauty and Beast.

For the most part, golfers will not be punished by its length, but other factors — such as the wind blowing off the bluffs of Lake Michigan — add to the level of difficulty.

“ The irony is that one of the things that give it its teeth is not included on the rater’s check list,” Arcadia Bluffs director of golf and general manager William Shriver said. “The wind here plays a big role on how difficult the course will play. Because there are no trees, the golf course is designed around prevailing wind.

The fairways are extremely wide and generous, but for the most part there is not a flat spot on them.
The aspects that give Arcadia Bluffs its bite are also part of its charm. They include deep sod wall bunkers, tall heathers, fast rolling greens — and the bluffs overlooking Lake Michigan.

Fifty-two sod wall bunkers traverse and pepper the course, “but it’s not like they’re hidden,” defends Shriver.

“ It’s the green complexes, fairways, and elements of the wind and the bunkers. All those things make it challenging.”

Arcadia Bluffs is unlike any Michigan course you’ve played.

17. Elk Ridge
Atlanta, Jerry Matthews, 143, 74.5

Elk Ridge is a Jerry Matthews “thinking players” course.

“ The key, like everything else in golf,” said director of golf Scott Landane, “is keeping the ball in play.”
Elk Ridge plays over 7,100 yards from the back tees. The elevated greens make the course play even longer.

The natural beauty of Elk Ridge is another one of its assets. Set next to state owned land with one of the largest elk herds in Michigan, the golf course covers 450 acres with fairways isolated from each other. Some holes require forced carries. One par 5 features a double dogleg.

“ You have to manage the golf course,” Landane said. “You just can’t step up and whack the ball. A lot of the big hitters here keep their drivers in the bag, because you have to position yourself on this course to score.”

18. Gleneagle Golf Club
Hudsonville, Mike Shields, 143, 73.1

The lone course on the list that is not a typical destination stop or resort course, Gleneagle has some surprises in store for those who play it. At 6,700 yards, it isn’t overly long, but the real challenge begins the closer to the greens one gets.

“ When the course was designed, it was designed around the flat stick, because 40 to 50 percent of shots in a given round are around the green,” head professional Tom Ham said.“ Putting can be fun, but it can also be very challenging. Especially here.”

There are 13 holes — including four continuous ponds — where water comes into play, roughs consisting of heather-type grasses and condominium developments near the course. On the backside, there are trees to deal with on and off the fairway.

“ The yardage isn’t excessively long, but it’s tough to get up and down if you miss it in the wrong area,” Ham said. “It’s a demanding course off the tee and plays a lot longer than 6,700 yards. You can’t hit driver whenever you want. You need to lay up to certain areas.”

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